Bracing for life without 'Air' Competition: The company's 17-year-old patents on air soles will end in 1997.

August 19, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- "We don't sell dreams, we sell shoes," goes the latest marketing slogan from Nike Inc.

How many? Thirty-six percent of the fragmented athletic shoe market in 1995. More shoes than any of its competitors since 1987.

At the core of Nike's success is Air, a line of shoes worshiped as a fashion accessory and admired for its high-tech, gas-inflated soles.

But Nike's "Reign of Air" is in doubt. And the threat comes from the unlikeliest of places: the U.S. Patent Office.

After 17 years, Nike will soon relinquish its rights to two "Air" patents. When the last of the nonrenewable patents expires September 1997, Nike's rivals are free to develop their own lines of atmospheric shoes.

Nobody can be sure which competitors, if any, will enter the Air Race. Some say brand-name, shoe manufacturers may be the ones to rush out with air models.

"Why not?" asks Sol Schwartz, showroom manager at Holabird Sports, a Baltimore sporting-goods company that is one of the nation's largest mail-order retailers of athletic shoes. "Everyone knows Air makes Nike special."

Others predict a glut of Air imitators in the bargain stores. As the thinking goes, such outlets would be havens for consumers hungry for shoes that look like Nike, but cost a fraction of the price.

"You'll see a lot of knock-offs," predicts Robert Liewald, USA general manager at Fila, a competitor whose U.S. operations are based in Hunt Valley. "But among [major] brands, nobody is trying to get where Nike is -- they'll be someplace else when you get there."

Nike is reluctant to speculate. Company President Tom Clarke deflects such questions, saying he doesn't know what other manufacturers are planning. But for the record, Clarke adds, "I think a smart competitor wouldn't do it."

"It's going to be very difficult for other companies to come in without more or less conceding that Nike was right all along."

Making footwear history

What's beyond dispute is Nike's leading role in footwear history. In little more than 20 years, the Oregon-based behemoth has transformed simple sneakers into little technology machines, complete with waffle soles and air cushions.

Even Nike names sound like machinery straight from the launch pad at Mission Control: Air Skylon Triax, Air Vapor Trainer Mid, Air Snak, to name a few.

That's a far cry from when a sneaker was exactly that: a sneaker. Names were pronounceable: "Chuck Taylors" or "Jack Purcells." Shoe tops were canvas. Colors were black, white and, for the extremely daring, fire-engine red.

Sneakers were for running and jumping. Mostly, they were for children. Price? $20, tops.

Today, athletic shoes are designed for skate boarding, hiking, cross training -- every endeavor including showing off. And each pair makes a fashion statement.

More than most brands, Nikes are pop art for the feet. They come in pastels, neons, stripes, solids. One eye-catching basketball model features huge air soles and -- just so consumers get the message -- the word "air" in letters larger than the average shoe horn.

Prices range as high as $140 a pair, but that's a pittance when the goal is to look cool.

And make no mistake: Nike is cool.

"Through their marketing, Nike has captured the thing that really plays well in America: the cut-loose, machismo image," says Doug Holt, assistant professor of marketing at Penn State University.

And, Holt points out, Nike is one of several shoe companies wrapping itself in the deeds of athletes such as Michael Jordan.

"Today's athletes are religious totems," says Holt, who conducts cultural and sociological research on consumption. "They're physically able. They're worshiped world over. When you put on the shoes Michael Jordan wears, you think, 'Maybe I'll get contaminated by a little bit of the magic.' "

Nike's unique system

If star worship works to Nike's advantage, so has the air sole. It's a unique system of gas-filled pockets and channels that minimizes jarring hits when shoe meets court or pavement.

Nike claims its cushioning system is the best, superior to alternatives, including Reebok's Hexalite, Brooks' Hydroflow, Etonic's Stable Air and Fila's 2-A.

Air may be unmatched in another critical respect. It can be explained.

"It's such a simple engineering concept, it's hard to beat," says Clarke, the Nike president, who is a former track coach with a doctorate in sports related biomechanics. "Everybody understands an air mattress or air in tires."

"It's so positive," says Paul Heffernan, a vice president at New Balance. " 'Light as air, fresh as air, like walking on air.' "

Dating back a decade, the company's most ambitious ad campaigns have been tailored to sell Air. Through the years, the company has pushed its major sub-brand with everything from a hit song to superstar endorsements. Ten years ago, it licensed the music and lyrics to the Beatles' "Revolution" to launch the shoe industry's first national TV campaign.

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